The Problem With Red Meat Research

The speculation that red meat consumption increases disease risk has been around for as long as most of us can remember. Largely because of the misconceptions surrounding saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease, but also because of power-trippin vegans and click-desperate media outlets blowing up the interweb with tax-wasting epidemiological evidence.

Any of the eye-catching headlines demonizing red meat that you’ve been drawn to over the last decade are based on observational studies that rely on food frequency questionnaires (like this one).  Which not only demonstrate zero causation – because two things existing together doesn’t mean that one causes the other (ex: shark attacks and ice cream sales increase at the same time) – but come with a TON of bias. Especially when comparing your typical vegetarian to your typical meat-eater!

“The higher meat consumption group tended to be overweight, smoked and was less active.” –Robb Wolf

First of all, people that eat less red meat are generally more health conscious (known as the ‘healthy user bias’); whether that’s not smoking, being more physically active, or avoiding sugar and processed foods (1, 2). Basically, they take care of themselves, so they tend to avoid it more than they consume it (because we’ve been taught to believe that red meat is bad), while their unhealthy counterparts tend to consume it more than they avoid it (think McDonalds and Taco Bell).

The second problem with these studies is that food-frequency questionnaires are a horrendous way to gather information. Many times getting people to recall exactly what they ate weeks prior (even though most of us probably can’t remember what you ate for breakfast yesterday!), and having greater than 50% of participants straight-up LIE about what they’re eating.

“The study found a correlation between increased mortality and a population’s propensity to report eating meat, not a correlation between mortality and true meat intake.” –Chris Masterjohn

And finally, the red-meat eating vs vegetarian observational studies don’t make a clear distinction between meat quality. With the researchers grouping steaks together with fast-food hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza toppings.

Because it’s all red meat right?

Meanwhile, any reviews or meta-analysis’ (a group of observational evidence) looking at red meat and disease, have consistently produced results that are inconclusive. Like this study from 2011 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

“The available epidemiologic data are not sufficient to support an independent and unequivocal positive association between red meat intake and CRC (colorectal cancer).”

Or this one from the same year in the journal Obesity Reviews:

“…the currently available epidemiologic evidence is not sufficient to support an independent positive association between red meat consumption and colorectal cancer.”

And realistically, even if the results were conclusive, they’re still based on a group of observational studies that used data from food-frequency questionnaires and made no adjustment for the healthy user bias.

In other words, the 6 o’clock news may tell you otherwise, and your plant-based pals on Facebook will make sure you hear about it; but at the end of the day, there’s no strong evidence to suggest that red meat causes cancer and heart disease, and there never will be. Regardless of the headlines:

“Red meat is blamed for one in 10 early deaths” – The Telegraph

“All red meat is bad for you, new study says” – The Chicago Tribune

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When we remove these biases and compare apples to apples (or in this case, healthy people to healthy people), the meat-eaters and vegetarians both live longer than the general population.

Now all we have to do is convince the vegetarians to Eat Red Meat, and both groups can live stronger and healthier too.

Stay Lean!
Coach Mike


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